1942 - Mucknell Abbey
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The Community moves to St Katharine’s House, Wantage

This was a year of considerable change for the still fledgling Community, which was also faced with difficulties over money, discipline and health, as well as uncertainty about its identity and future. But in spite of this the number of Novices continued to grow, and as the year drew to a close plans were being made to put this ‘courageous adventure’ on a more stable footing.

The year got off to a very positive start with the clothing of five new Novices. These were Florence Gill (N. Benedict Mary), Sybil Charlesworth (N. Isolda Mary), Joyce Meredith (N. Joyce Mary), Dorothy Serjeant (N. Dorothy) and the colourful Marica, who took another name change to become N. Marie Therese. They were clothed in the Community’s new grey, Salutation habit, which replaced the black ones worn at St Thomas’. It brought the total number of Novices to eight.

A new home

St Katharine's, Wantage

St Thomas’ Convent was only ever intended to be a temporary home, and in January the Community was invited to leave and move to a new home in Wantage. This was St Katharine’s House on Ormond Road, built for CSMV in 1898 to house a girls boarding school. In 1938 dwindling numbers and a consequent decline in revenue led to its closure and amalgamation with St Helen’s, Abingdon. Unable to sell it on, the building became overflow accommodation for retreatants at the Convent. The art and embroidery studios were also relocated there. After the outbreak of war it provided a safe haven for evacuees from two London branch houses: ‘Old Ladies’ from Camberwell and ‘Toddlers’ from Stamford hill. These were still in residence when SSMV moved into a section set aside for them near the Chapel.

The Community moved in on 30 January. The accommodation was obviously far from ideal, and in the beginning some of the Novices were forced to occupy open cubicles rather than have closed cells to themselves. This lack of privacy proved to be ‘such a difficulty’ that it was agreed to rotate everyone on a monthly basis. This arrangement lasted until May when the removal of the Toddlers to a new building freed up more space. But for the Novice Mistress the extra privacy led to new problems. In August an inspection of the cells found ‘much that was undesirable and contrary to Novices’ Instructions’. The logbook, whose almost daily entries are the source of most of our knowledge for this period, records that they were given a dressing down at Recreation and sent to ‘justify the same’. For older women used to living alone adjusting to the demands of community life must have presented considerable difficulties.

And new leadership…

Mother Cecilia, having been relieved of her charge of St Thomas’ Community, followed SSMV to Wantage to continue as their Superior. Perhaps the growing numbers had made a dual responsibility increasingly untenable. But within a day of her arrival at St Katharine’s she fell down a flight of steps leading to the Chapel, fracturing her leg. After almost a week spent in bed, in great pain and with a high fever, she was finally taken to the Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, and from there to a convalescence at the Convent. Although her absence proved to be permanent – she was ‘invalided’ until her death in 1954 – Mother Louisa Frances was drafted in as a temporary substitute. A Cowley Father later described her as ‘wise, balanced – and so painfully humble’, and a definite asset to the fledgling community. She herself thought she was acting as a ‘kind of referee’.

My loving greetings to my dear children SSMV and such grateful thanks for their most welcome letter Novices and Postulants. I felt a very happy Mother and very rich in receiving so much love. I hope our life together will now begin very soon…May our Dear Lord and His Holy Mother reveal to us increasingly their desires for us, and thus love to us, Your devoted Mother in Them...

– Letter from Mother Cecilia to SSMV, January 1942

Mother Louisa Frances (1875-1965) was the sixth child of Scottish aristocrat Walter Erskine, 13th Earl of Kellie. Through her mother’s extended family there were strong links with CSMV, and in 1905 she was Professed as a Sister. She had been Novice Mistress (1912-1919) and had held a number of leadership positions thereafter, culminating in her election as Mother General in 1931.

In February the Community’s Warden, Fr Leonard Allen (1873-1942), passed away after a long-illness. His replacement was Fr John Nash, who with ‘selfless generosity’ had been helping out at Wantage since the previous June. Trained a Kelham Theological College and priested in 1937, he had come to Wantage from a Curacy in West Bromwich. Meanwhile Fr Bruce continued to act as the Community’s Chaplain and Confessor, making fortnightly trips from Oxford. An entry from the logbook, dated 5 February, offers an amusing glimpse into this relationship:

Fr Bruce arrived about 6.30 to hear Confessions. He saw Mother C`{`ecilia`}` and then went off to the Convent to see Mother General, and have supper with the Warden. Arrived back at 8.50 prepared to hear the 9 confessions, but had to be told firmly but politely that it was too late as these were already saying Compline, and he must hear the Confessions in the morning and catch the 10.30 `{`a.m`}` bus instead of the 9.30 `{`a.m`}` as he had planned! He was reluctant but agreed on condition that we ring up and tell the Sisters at Littlemore that he would be late for an appointment there
Fr John Nash
Fr John Nash and his wife [CSMV Archives]

At the beginning of April Sr Juste was sent to replace Sr Marjorie Thekla as the Community’s Novice Mistress, who returned to the Convent. Some years later she  would re-enter the Community’s life as an aspiring solitary. As the original Third Order formator Sr Juste would have been a familiar face to some of her new Novices, although her appointment may have been envisioned from the outset as a stop-gap, lasting as it did only three months. Although she too would return in the following year, in July she was replaced as Novice Mistress by Sr Monica. Little is known about Sr Monica other than a incidental remark [?she] made in the logbook, revealing she had spent 20 years in Africa.

Formally installed on the Feast of the Assumption, she seems to have immediately adopted a more systematic approach to formation by instituting weekly, hour-long meetings with each of the Novices. Her weekly novice classes, which we know covered such subjects as Penance, Obedience and Reverence, were supplemented by Mother Annie Louisa’s continuing lessons on church history. For some these proved to be surprisingly contentious. In late November Fr Lucius Carey SSJE was brought in to adjudicate a complaint made by Novice Joyce that these lessons were, in her own words, ‘provocative of controversy’. Sadly the logbook records no further details. In addition to this formation the Community also benefited from regular choir practices, drawing on the rich musical tradition established at CSMV, who in conjunction with G.H Palmer (1846-1926) had revived and spread the use of medieval plainsong. ‘We all felt much stimulated’ [Logbook, 17 April 1942]

Meanwhile, over on the other side of town, Mother Cecilia was still acting as Superior de jure. She received visits there from her Novice Mistresses; continued to take part in meetings about the Community’s future, and kept in contact with her charges through prayer and correspondence.

My grateful and loving thanks to all the dear, dear SSMV Novices. I was sure I should hear something if only because yesterday I made the Intention for Communion, Mass and Offices all to said `{`sic`}` for them and with them. And here is something I copied out for them and for me: - “Let us pray for a great increase of fervour in those whom He has called in to the peaceful seclusion of the Visitation of Holy Mary”. May the Divine Bridegroom draw in daily closer within His Embrace and the Holy Mother visit us daily, hourly in life and in death.

Letter from Mother Cecilia to SSMV, 3 July 1942

Work and money

At a CSMV Council Meeting held in June the question of SSMV’s financial independence was discussed. The minutes make clear that, as things stood, they were in straightened circumstances. Unsupported by their mother Community, the Novices were obliged to keep SSMV afloat from their own resources, and some of them had just enough to pay a small sum of board. After payments were made to St Katharine’s – it was not totally gratis – they were management to put aside £20 a week. But this surplus derived largely from the contributions of wealthier Novices, and the possibility of affording a house of their own at some point in the future, ‘barely possible’ as things were, was totally dependent on their continued membership.

It was thought that a partial solution to these difficulties might be found through the bakery* which had been moved to St Katharine’s in May from the mission house in Paddington, presumably in response to the war. It had immediately provided work for a number of SSMV Novices, some of whom had already been sent for training. At the meeting it was proposed that, as a solution to their financial difficulties, CSMV might pay them for their work. A similar arrangement had been established in the past with another daughter community. But the reality was that few if any of them were strong enough for the actual baking itself. This confined them to the business of ‘cutting’. By August their involvement would diminish yet further, when it was agreed that the bakery must be sufficient apart from SSMV’s involvement. Help would only be available as and when possible. This was due not only to a lack of physical stamina, or low numbers, but the principle that nothing should interfere with their primary commitment to prayer.

Sr Juste thought that a more likely source of reliable income might be found among the artists, Joyce and Benedict Mary. Like Joyce, Benedict Mary had been trained at the Liverpool School of Art. From 1909 to 1926 she exhibited work as a sculptor in a number of exhibitions, particularly the Artists of the Northern Counties held at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where she lived with her parents. Throughout this period she almost certainly supported herself through teaching, and in 1939 we find her working as a training college lecturer at Matlock in Derbyshire. At St Katharine’s she was given use of the Studio, and we know from the logbook that during this time she was working on a Stations of the Cross. She also did some printing work for a new CSMV house. On two occasions she was given permission to travel to London on Studio business. Although the focus of their life must have kept them mostly indoors, this and other examples make it clear that there remained no enclosure. This would change when, in the following year, they got a house of their own. It is true that enclosure had not been part of the original vision, but until that date it had also been impractical.

Other work around the house included cleaning and cooking, as well as assisting in the Sacristy, which in wartime included “blacking out” the chapel for use in the evenings. Novice Irene was also given permission to use her medical expertise when necessary, and the fact that the question was raised at all suggests there was some demand for it.

St Katharine's Chapel
The chapel at St Katharine's, which the Community shared with the other occupants.

Health and discipline

One of the reasons for establishing the Community had been to provide for women whose health was not up to the rigors of a normal Novitiate. The question, of course, was how low to set the bar. A visiting doctor described one of the Novices as ‘abnormal’, both from a physical and mental point of view, and couldn’t understand why she had been allowed to enter. As it happened she would remain long after the others had left, and from the logbook it is clear that most if not all the Novices had pre-existing medical conditions. Not only did this put a limit on the amount of manual work they could do, but it eventually came to affect chapel attendance.

One of the most interesting documents to have survived in the Mucknell archives dates from the beginning of 1943, although it dealt with problems that had been brewing for some time before this. Written by the Maribel, the Mother General, and entitled ‘About SSMV’, it outlined the original idea behind the formation of the Society and the ways in which, through an unacceptable and unwarranted degree of laxity, they were diverging from it. She reminded them in no uncertain terms that ‘worship being the sole reason for their existence, absolute obedience to this corporate central act was to be essential’. Allowances had already been made for their likely inability to practice the usual bodily austerities of contemplative orders. Their ascesis was to be ‘in their perfect observance of Rule [sic]’ and their ‘faithful, strict and unremitting attendance’ at the court of Christ the King; that is, Mass and the Divine Office. If they couldn’t manage this, even with an ample eight hours of rest, then they should be ‘considered ineligible’. Her fear was that without this obedience the whole enterprise would degenerate into a ‘spiritual home of rest’.

This dereliction of duty had also been accompanied, it seems, by the emergence of factions, with Maribel referring to ‘Strict’ and ‘Lax’ parties within the Community. Sr Monica, the Novice Mistress, was singled out for having introduced ‘laxities and dispensations’ that were contrary to her brief, and it was therefore incomprehensible as to why she had come to be identified as belonging to, or heading, the “strict” party. Nor could she see how Mother Louisa Frances, who she regarded as an ‘outstanding example of disciplined, mortified, unpretentious [and] devoted Religious observance’, could conceivably be seen as “lax”. If had been it surely only out of love for their weakness.

Although remembered as a champion of the underdog, Mother Maribel was a physically robust, single-minded character who demanded of others the same high standards she set for herself. She could never understand why, in the Religious life, anyone would choose to settle for ‘mediocrity’. Yet in spite of the letter’s harsh and uncompromising tone, by the time the letter was read out she had sufficiently relented – at Mother Louisa Frances’ request – to grant each of the Novices an early night once a week. It meant saying Compline, Lauds and Matins all together before supper, although there are suggestions that Lauds and Matins – traditionally said at night and in the early morning – were already being “anticipated” the night before.

Arrivals and departures

There were a number of enquirers and aspirants throughout the year, including the artist and CSMV Tertiary Bel Lithiby (see 1937). Although she was told she had, at present, ‘no glimmer’ of a Religious vocation, she was nonetheless encouraged to wait and see how the Community developed, there being ‘so many changes’. Another was Eleanor Covernton (d.1985), who in imitation of the absent Superior fell and broke her leg within two days of her arrival. Although the Community showed itself to be solicitous and accommodating, she didn’t stay beyond a short recuperation.

But there were two late arrivals in November – Marjorie Hodkinson and Cecilia Gow – who stayed long enough to be admitted as Postulants. Although it had been agreed at the Council meeting earlier in the year that prospective members must have some private means, it is doubtful whether this was the case with either woman. With only one exception, all the existing Novices came from solid middle or upper class backgrounds. Those of Marjorie and Cecilia, a former typist and elementary school teacher respectively, were more modest. Marjorie was probably one of the two novices later described as being ‘valuable workers’, and whose ability to earn money for the Community in the bakery made up for their lack of financial resources.

In late August, early September there were two departures from the Community. The first was Hilda Townsend, a Secular Tertiary who had arrived as an Aspirant in December 1941. This was her fourth, and last, attempt at the Religious life. Having been laid low with a heart attack within days of being clothed she only managed four months in the Novitiate. The second to leave was N. Mary Ursula (Picton), one of the four founding members of the Community. There are hints in the logbook that she was struggling to look after herself and that the decision to leave was made on her behalf. Nothing is known about her later life.

Preparing for Profession

By Autumn discussions were underway among the Community’s leadership as to the question of vows. The original Constitution provided for a two year novitiate, followed by a period under annual vows before taking Life Profession. But in August that Constitution had been recalled, with the recognition that attempts to fit the Society into such a fixed mould were, at this stage, useless. This may have been replaced by a working draft drawn up by Sr Juste.

But as time went on the question of vows required a definite decision to be made. Perhaps keen to impart some stability to the Community sooner rather than later, they were already willing to waive the need for a two year novitiate. The question was whether those vows should be temporary or final. There were pros and cons for each option, and various parties were canvassed – including the Abbot of Nashdom and Fr Frederic Harton (1889-1958). But in the end the decision was made in favour of temporary vows. In early 1943 this was endorsed by their new Visitor, Kenneth Kirk (1886-1954), the Bishop of Oxford, who thought the Community needed time to prove itself.